In a way our trip to Mtunzini to visit the Seacom landing station on 28 May 2009 was a great analogy for the Seacom cable’s impact on South Africa’s degree of connectivity to the Internet. It took us about 2 hours to fly from Johannesburg to Durban and back again and about double that amount of time in a bus travelling to the presentation in Ballito, the site itself and back to Durban International. Put another way, South Africa is poised to boost its bandwidth more than tenfold from its current capacity when the Seacom cable goes live in the coming months. This is a big thing for South Africa although it isn’t quite what the hype has led us to believe.
The hope has been that when someone flips a switch at the end of June 2009 we will see prices drop by an order of magnitude; we will all be able to view YouTube videos without buffering first; Telkom’s monopoly will be thwarted and we will have abundant bandwidth, government will operate efficiently and honestly and all will be right with the world. Unfortunately many of these hopes will be dashed and the immediate effect of the Seacom cable going live will be more gradually felt in South Africa.
That being said, the Seacom cable will eventually facilitate a very different Internet experience for a great many South Africans who should see prices for their data drop noticeably. There have already been a number of price reductions, probably in anticipation of Seacom’s arrival, so we can realistically expect prices to drop a further 40% or so from their current levels in the coming months and years. The shift to a fibre connection from a predominantly satellite connection should mean better quality connections which more technical people can explain using terms like latency and so on.
Aside from the eventual benefits, I found Seacom’s CEO Brian Herlihy’s talk about open access particularly appealing. While some of his presentation is what you would expect from a marketing pitch, he spoke quite passionately about how the Seacom cable’s tremendous bandwidth could help under-serviced communities leapfrog older connectivity options and reap the fruits of a high-speed Internet connection. He talked about communities in Rwanda laying fibre optics cables inland which will help transmit the cable’s 1.28tbps (terabits per second) to schools, villages and cities. This kind of connectivity could be the catalyst for an African Google and create a truly level playing field where Africans can better compete with the rest of the world.
Another thing the Seacom cable may well help achieve is a shift in mindsets about Africa and its data usage. Africa is apparently perceived largely as a “voice” market because data is traditionally too expensive for widespread adoption. The cable could help change this through reduced data prices. It also helps that the African countries who will be fed by the cable have committed to its success.
In South Africa powerhouses such as Tata, Neotel and Internet Solutions are “anchor tenants” and our mobile networks are in the process of establishing the infrastructure necessary to tap into this firehouse when it turns on. We may not see price reductions right away but the industry is definitely about to change dramatically. This degree of broadband will also mean a different experience of the Internet. As Herlihy put it, “real broadband is about dynamic media”, not just web pages and embedded videos.
There are a number of unrealistic expectations of the Seacom cable and, at the same time, a tremendous amount of promise. It will change our Internet consumption patterns (barring even more collusion from the networks and more rampant profiteering at any rate) and quite possibly change the South African economy itself.
Take a look at Mr Chetty’s post about the Seacom media event for more information about the trip and the cable itself while you’re reading about Seacom. Great post!